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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Enjoy the Trappings of Christmas



Merry Christmas! I hope you have a chance to celebrate the day today. It's easy to see all the commercialism, the merchandising of a sacred remembrance, and resent buying gifts or gathering to spend time with extended family. It's even easy to think that the trees, presents, and decorations distract us from the real reason for Christmas, that is the coming of Jesus. But that isn't true. Just as the solemnity of bonding two people together is followed by a celebration, so to should the joining of holy God with human flesh be recognized. That isn't my idea; Saint Augustine preached on it over 1500 years ago:1
That day is called the birthday of the Lord on which the Wisdom of God manifested Himself as a speechless Child and the Word of God wordlessly uttered the sound of a human voice. His divinity, although hidden, was revealed by heavenly witness to the Magi and was announced to the shepherds by angelic voices. With yearly ceremony, therefore, we celebrate this day which saw the fulfillment of the prophecy:
  • "Truth is sprung out of the earth: and justice hath looked down from heaven." 2
  • Truth, eternally existing in the bosom of the Father, has sprung from the earth so that He might exist also in the bosom of a mother.
  • Truth, holding the world in place, has sprung from the earth so that He might be carried in the hands of a woman.
  • Truth, incorruptibly nourishing the happiness of the angels, has sprung from the earth in order to be fed by human milk.
  • Truth, whom the heavens cannot contain, has sprung from the earth so that He might be placed in a manger.
For whose benefit did such unparalleled greatness come in such lowliness? Certainly for no personal advantage, but definitely for our great good, if only we believe. Arouse yourself, O man; for you God has become man. "Awake, sleeper, and arise from among the dead, and Christ will enlighten thee."3 For you, I repeat, God has become man.
  • If He had not thus been born in time, you would have been dead for all eternity.
  • Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, if He had not taken upon Himself the likeness of sinful flesh.
  • Everlasting misery would have engulfed you, if He had not taken this merciful form.
  • You would not have been restored to life, had He not submitted to your death; you would have fallen, had He not succored you; you would have perished, had He not come.
Let us joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festal day on which the great and timeless One came from the great and timeless day to this brief span of our day.
So, give voice to the joy that we have in the Savior's arrival. Enjoy your holiday and I wish you a very Merry Christmas!

References

1. The text of Augustine's sermon #185 has been reformatted by me. The translation is taken from "For The Feast Of The Nativity: Sermon 185." Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons. Trans. Sister Mary S. Muldowney. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1959. 6-7. Print.
2. Ps. 84.12
3. Eph. 5.14.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Why It Must Be a Manger

In our house, the manager of our nativity set stays empty until Christmas eve, when we place the baby Jesus there. We used to have a nativity that was ceramic and hand made by my mother. Jesus couldn't be removed. But when my kids were born, they were fascinated by the set and wanted to play with the people. Rather than forbidding such curiosity, we encouraged it by buying a molded rubber set where they couldn't break the figures.



One of the outcomes of that choice was a couple family traditions that developed. First, the Wise Men were placed at the back of the house and traveled through each child's room before arriving in "Bethlehem" on Christmas Eve. (Yes, I know this isn't historically accurate, but it serves to make the point to the young audience.) Secondly, the baby Jesus is hidden and doesn't get placed in the manger until we ask one of the kids to do it on Christmas day.

The act of placing Jesus in the manger offers all kinds of opportunities for discussion. Have you ever wondered why Luke makes the point of saying that Jesus's first bed was a manger? There are at least three reasons that I can think of to show why the manger is important.

The Manger Links Jesus to All Men

Scholars like Ben Witherington tell us that Bethlehem was most likely too small to have a formal inn. The word used for inn is the Greek katalyma which is translated "guest chamber" and could be used for a guest room as well. Jesus sent his disciples to find a katalyma to eat the Passover meal in Mark 14:14. Given that Bethlehem was the family home of Joseph, they most likely stayed in a relative's house, but with so many relatives showing up, they would be relegated to the larger open room attached to the house where people would bring their animals in for the night.1

This would instantly make Jesus relatable to shepherds. Shepherds themselves were not thought of highly in Jewish culture, and to see the Savior of the world in the very tool they themselves used to feed their livestock symbolized that this King of Israel was for all mankind. No rank or provide bars access to the lord. He has come for anyone who would seek him.

The Manger Shows Jesus's Humility

Secondly, and perhaps most obviously, the humble beginnings of Jesus in the manger shows the very attitude of Jesus in becoming incarnate. Philippians 2:5-8 describes the incarnation this way:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
That attitude persisted even through Jesus's adult life. He remained poor, and eschewed material comforts, saying The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." (Luke 9:58, NASB).

The Manger Shows Jesus as the Bread of Life

Lastly, the manger is a crucial symbol of Jesus as the one upon who we rely for our existence. Mangers are feeding toughs; from them an animal receives its nutrition. Jesus frequently compared himself to our sustenance, saying "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh" (John 6:51). Even in establishing the communion service, Jesus equated the bread to his own body. The first thing done to the body of the baby Jesus is to lay it in a manger. Thus, by that very act he is shown to be real food for the whole world.


References

1 Witherington, Ben. "No Inn in the Room-- a Christmas Sermon on Lk. 2.1-7." Ben Witherington. Ben Witherington, 9 Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Dec. 2014. http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/12/no-inn-in-room-christmas-sermon-on-lk_09.html .

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

You Just Might Be Celebrating a Japanese Christmas

To look at it, Christmas in Japan looks pretty Western. There are Christmas trees, lights, and even pictures of Santa adorning windows. There are some differences, of course. Christmas cake is ubiquitous and you may be a bit disturbed to discover that what you thought was a statue of Santa was actually Colonel Sanders decked out in a red Santa outfit. It seems that many Japanese think a proper Christmas dinner centers around a bucket of KFC. But, such are the quirks of a holiday spread across the globe. Cultures will interpret the joy of celebrating Christ's coming in their own ways, right?



Except the Japanese don't. Japan is a country that is only about 1% Christian, according to the Pew Forum1. Christmas isn't an officially recognized holiday at all; children still attend school and businesses are open (especially KFC!) Yet, the trappings of a Western tradition are there. So, why do the Japanese get into the decorations and the trees at all? It seems those Christmas cakes provide some good insight into the motivations for the Japanese celebration.

Pre-World War II Japan didn't have a lot of exposure to Christians. The Roman Catholic Church had sent missionaries to the island in 1549where they "soon established churches, hospitals, orphanages and educational institutions, which became venues whereby the two cultures could encounter one another."2 Yet, crushing martyrdoms and extended persecutions left Japan with only a sliver of Christian believers who were forced underground for centuries.3 The nation was still feudal and agrarian, with only the elites having the wealth for indulgence. Cultural scholar Hideyo Konagaya states that "Modernity and affluence in Christmas were still not a realistic notion when rural lives and feudalistic social systems still predominated."4

Christmas as Affluence

After World War II, things were worse. According to an NPR article, the economy was a disaster. People there did whatever they could to make ends meet, but luxuries such as sugar or chocolate were in short supply. However, US soldiers often had candy bars they distributed to children.5 Konagaya writes, "Sweet chocolates, above all, given by American soldiers epitomized the utmost wealth Japanese children saw in American lives. They brought the message that affluence and happiness took American forms (Fujiwara)."6 Cake had also been previously linked to western affluence and it was "available exclusively to the upper aristocratic class or urban elite."7

However, as Japan's economy recovered and then boomed in the 1980's, "Christmas celebrations gave the Japanese the most tangible pictures that could convey images of prosperous modern lives in America" and the cake was the epitome of that symbol of success."8 Today, young urban Japanese see Christmas Eve not as a day to celebrate at home with family, but as an upscale night on the town where tangible gifts to your beloved are expected.

Sometimes a Mirror is Uncomfortable to See

While the Japanese interpretation of Christmas may seem remote, I think Konagaya was right when noting that the Japanese were simply trying to mimic American values and traditions. They saw the commercialism, the emphasis on stuff, the weight we placed on the trappings of the day and presented all of that without any of the spiritual root that should be the focus of Christmas. Was something lost in the translation? Perhaps. Yet, an imperfect mirror will distort an image but it can highlight flaws you hadn't noticed before.

We need to make sure in our Christmas celebrations that Jesus is the central focus for the day. The Japan Times noted this conversation where a Japanese woman enquired about the origin of Christmas from an American man:
Young Japanese woman: Is Christmas celebrated to mark the birth of Jesus or his death?
American man: Do people usually go shopping before a funeral?
At least she knows it has something to do with Jesus!

When my kids were young, we used cake to celebrate Christmas as well. It wasn't a Japanese Christmas cake; it was a birthday cake. We had a plastic Nativity set that the kids could play with. We would set the Wise Men figures at the back of the house and the kids would move them each day until their journey was complete on Christmas Eve. We would also hide the baby Jesus figure until Christmas morning. Later that day, we'd decorate the cake with birthday candles and everything. It isn't much, but these traditions put the emphasis back on the coming of Jesus instead of the coming of presents.

I pray that you and your family will emphasize the amazing gift of the Savior, of God with Us, this Christmas. Make sure that your outward celebrations show that aspect of the holiday. After all, you never know who's watching.

References

1. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, comp. "Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Christian Population." PewForum.org. Pew Research Center, Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. http://www.pewforum.org/files/2011/12/Christianity-fullreport-web.pdf 2. Hull, Simon. "Christian Heritage of Japan." The Japan Times. Japan Times Ltd., 04 Aug. 2014. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2014/08/04/commentary/world-commentary/christian-heritage-japan.
3. Hull, 2014.
4. Konagaya, Hideyo. "The Christmas Cake: A Japanese Tradition of American Prosperity." The Journal of Popular Culture 34.4 (2001): 121-36. Web.
5. Bruzek, Alison. "Japan's Beloved Christmas Cake Isn't About Christmas At All." NPR. NPR, 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/12/16/369830094/a-christmas-cake-that-isn-t-about-christmas-at-all.
6. Konagaya, 2001. 122.
7. Konagaya, 2001. 122.
8. Konagaya, 2001. 123.
Image courtesy Catherine and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Monday, December 22, 2014

To Witness Like Jesus, Use Logic and Reason

Christians will many times hear atheists make the claim that faith is somehow opposed to reason.  Most people of faith that I talk with reject that idea. They don't believe that one must choose either faith or reason. However, there are quite a few Christians who think that faith and reason are separate realms that may coexist, but they don't touch. For some Christians, think this idea is comforting. They have taken certain slogans of "bumper-sticker" Christianity such as "Jesus is all I need" and think that such a position is powerful enough to ward off objections. Worse, they think that the same approach works with evangelism.



This is not only a travesty, it is antithetical to who Jesus is and how he evangelized. Jesus was an intellect. In fact, Jesus was the smartest man who ever lived and reason is at the core of who he was. We can see that clearly when the scriptures identify him as The Logos (John 1:1). The Greek word logos is usually translated "The Word" in our English Bibles, but it has a richer meaning. "The Word" is a concept of knowledge. As Merrill F. Unger puts it, "Words are the vehicle for the revelation of the thoughts and intents of the mind to others."1 In fact, logos is where we get the English word "logic."  The word holds the concept of "consideration or evaluation, reflection, or in philosophy, ground or reason."2

Because Jesus is the Logos, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Jesus used logic in his efforts to evangelize others. Jesus' aim in utilizing logic is not to win battles, but to impart understanding or insight in the minds and hearts of his audience. Dallas Willard writes:
 (Jesus) typically aims at real inward change of view that would enable his hearers to become significantly different as people through the workings of their own intellect. They will have, unless they are strongly resistant to the point of blindness, the famous ‘eureka' experience, not the experience of being outdone or beaten down.3
We read of clear examples of this in scripture, such as Jesus' interaction with the woman at the well in John 4 and the different exchanges with both the Pharisees and the Sadducees in Mathew 22.

Jesus even rebuked His disciples for not thinking rationally. In Matthew 16, Jesus is warning his disciples to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." However, they miss his point, and instead begin worrying that he was going to get mad at them because they didn't bring enough bread for the trip.  Jesus replies:
You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up? How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread?4

Stronger Minds Mean Stronger Convictions

Reason is part of the model Jesus gave us to learn, to discern, and to share our faith with others. As disciples of His, it makes sense that we should follow his example. However, there are some real benefits to incorporating logic and reason into our witnessing efforts. By allowing others to "discover" these spiritual truths, they would become more convinced of the reality of Christ and Christianity than those looking for a feel-good faith. Rational believers are much stronger in their convictions and their faith. They are also less likely to be swayed from contradictory teaching since they know that their faith is not "blind" or transitory, but anchored in the truth of the Logos. They know that their beliefs have their origin in history and they provide real answers for a world in need. So, let's think a little harder and incorporate rationality into our efforts to share the truth of the Gospel with others. Jesus would have us do nothing less.

References

1. Unger, Merrill F., R. K. Harrison, Howard Frederic Vos, Cyril J. Barber, and Merrill F. Unger. "Logos." The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Chicago: Moody, 1988. 780. Print.
2. Bromeley, Geoffery W. "Logos." Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdsmans, 1985. 510. Print
3. Willard, Dallas. "Jesus The Logician." Dallas Willard. Dallas Willard., 1999. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.
4. "Matthew 16:5-11." New American Standard Bible. La Habra, CA: Foundation Publications, for the Lockman Foundation, 1971. N. pag. Print.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Jesus as the Paradigm of Logic and Reason

The thought that faith is somehow divorced from reason or logic has become far too prevalent in our society today. In fact, as I have written before, the very opposite is true for Christianity. The Christian faith has led the way in reasoning since its very inception. Not only did it produce some of the greatest thinkers the world has known, but its very founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was the epitome of intellect.  Dallas Willard explains:
Often, it seems to me, we see and hear his deeds and words, but we don't think of him as one who knew how to do what he did or who really had logical insight into the things he said. We don't automatically think of him as a very competent person.

He multiplied the loaves and fishes and walked on water, for example—but, perhaps, he didn't know how to do it, he just used mindless incantations or prayers. Or he taught on how to be a really good person, but he did not have moral insight and understanding. He just mindlessly rattled off words that were piped in to him and through him. Really?
Willard sums up Jesus'value of the intellect thusly:
There is in our culture an uneasy relation between Jesus and intelligence, and I have actually heard Christians respond to my statement that Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived by saying that it is an oxymoron. Today we automatically position him away from (or even in opposition to) the intellect and intellectual life. Almost no one would consider him to be a thinker, addressing the same issues as, say, Aristotle, Kant, Heidegger or Wittgenstein, and with the same logical method.

We need to understand that Jesus is a thinker, that this is not a dirty word but an essential work, and that his other attributes do not preclude thought, but only insure that he is certainly the greatest thinker of the human race: "the most intelligent person who ever lived on earth." He constantly uses the power of logical insight to enable people to come to the truth about themselves and about God from the inside of their own heart and mind. Quite certainly it also played a role in his own growth in "wisdom." (Luke 2:52)
Willard, Dallas. "Jesus The Logician." Dallas Willard. Dallas Willard., 1999. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.
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